I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation—only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.
-Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave
So states Solomon Northup in the first page of his grueling autobiography 12 Years a Slave; 160 years later Northup’s words are visually echoed in perhaps the best portrayal of slavery on film. 12 Years a Slave is a fictionalized historical drama by British director Steve McQueen that adapts Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same title. Given the palette of slavery, McQueen’s film is difficult to watch at times—as it should be—and I agree with critics who have called the film essential viewing. Having seen McQueen’s major theatrical releases, Hunger (2008, about the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike) and Shame (2011, about a struggling sex addict), I knew he wouldn’t shy away from starkly depicting the brutality of slavery, of which, believe it or not, the film could have shown even more.
African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who served as a historical consultant on 12 Years a Slave, says the film actually minimizes the depiction of violence: “Slavery was a brutal, violent, sadistic institution. And I think that Steve McQueen showed remarkable restraint. It just hints at how violent slavery was… You can’t depict it and not show violence. That would be Gone with the Wind. But if you’re depicting it, there is a lot more violence in Solomon Northup’s slave narrative than there is in Steve McQueen’s film” (click here to read more from this article). Very true, and while the violence in 12 Years a Slave is visceral and unrelenting, it is fully necessary, much in the way that Schindler’s List needed to show the atrocities Jewish people faced in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
The unfortunate reality is that many suffer from a “collective amnesia” and fail to take into account that the Middle Passage—the capture of Africans and the brutal crossing of the sea into the New World—was a holocaust that ruptured, damaged, or destroyed the lives of over 20 million African people. 12 Years a Slave can’t tell the total story of slavery—the epigraph from Northup states the impossibility of this—but it is admirable for its heightened focus on the experiences Northup faced when he was captured, taken from his family, and sold into bondage. Given how realistic McQueen’s antebellum Southern opera feels, the film will set the bar for which other films about slavery will be compared.
McQueen’s early ventures into the art world are apparent, as many scenes are so horrifically beautiful (with very long and wide shots) that you feel as if you are watching a painting slowly combust before your eyes. Such as in the scene where Northup hangs from a tree—almost like a Tableau vivant—with his feet barely touching the muddy ground, which feels like an eternity on the screen. The beautiful southern landscape, along with the pious hypocrisy of the slave owners shows just how dehumanizing slavery was for all parties involved. And yet, despite this brutality the slaves found ways to make their lives meaningful, emphasized, for example, through the spirituals in the film. Recounting the emotive and philosophical power of slave songs, Frederick Douglass attests, “I have sometimes thought the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do” (Narrative 57). Douglass declares that the slave song is the final province of resistance to slavery.
Of course, none of the music, storytelling, or spectacular cinematography would be very affecting if the acting weren’t so phenomenal. As the lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor gave such a heart wrenching and brilliant performance that it would be a shame if he weren’t given an Oscar nomination. The rest of the star-studded cast also shine, or tarnish, as evil men and women who personify the malevolent machinations of slavery. Paul Dano is particularly vicious, that is until we encounter Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a cruel plantation owner who is married to an equally cruel woman played by Sarah Paulson. However, the surprise standout performance, for me, was Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave on the Epps plantation who suffers the cruel brunt of the Epps’ guilt, jealousy, and perverted rage. Her performance will haunt me for some time to come, as will the film, which is the most painful, and lucid depiction of American slavery I’ve seen in cinema.
Watching a movie in Canada about American slavery, made by a black British director, reminded me of how global and transnational slavery was. And while Canada no longer practiced slavery at the time Northup was captured—he is aided by a Canadian carpenter in the film played by Brad Pitt—it is important to remember that slavery is “Canada’s best kept secret, locked within the National closet” (Afua Cooper, Untold Story 68). In Canada, slavery was not denounced until 1793, and was not formally abolished until 1834. I mention this because the last thing we should do as Canadians is congratulate ourselves for not participating in slavery—because we did—and our continued poor treatment of First Nations people (who were also once kept as slaves) is a reminder of the legacy of injustice that still effects this country.
On a less somber note, 12 Years a Slave is additionally a film about the will to overcome injustice, to find hope where only despair seems plausible, and to remain ardent in the search for greater freedom, fraternity, and equality for all people. Dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Northup’s book was published less than a year after his liberation. It became one of the best selling slave narratives of all time, and yet it remains unknown what happened to Solomon Northup. Regardless, Northup lives on in his book, and now his incredible story manifests in this gripping and powerful historical drama about the brutal inhumanities we as humans inflict upon one another. 12 Years a Slave offers no artificial Hollywood catharsis; rather, it presents an honest and harrowing parable of the evil of slavery as told through the real life experience of a man who was sent to hell and lived to tell about it.
Cooper, Afua. The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.